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How to Edit Non-Destructively in Photoshop

A guide to Photoshop's non-destructive editing

Picture this: You are about halfway through post-processing a beautiful urban landscape in Photoshop. You’ve already put hours into the edit when you suddenly notice that a small area of the image doesn’t add up. A wall you were working on has accidentally been cloned to look as if it were hanging at an unnatural angle. As a result, it just feels wrong.

After repeatedly hitting the Undo button, you discover that Photoshop can only remember so much, and you are stuck with this disastrous-looking edit. All you can do now is waste more time trying to fix the problem or close the program and start from the beginning. If only there were some way of editing your files in Photoshop so that each new adjustment was completely reversible…

Enter non-destructive editing in Photoshop! Below, I explain how you can use Photoshop non-destructively, making it easy to revert to earlier editing stages as needed – and saving you from headaches and intense frustration.

What is non-destructive editing?

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop
Now you see me…now you don’t! Editing with a non-destructive workflow means that you can edit your photos without leaving a trace on the original file.

Non-destructive editing (also known as “NDE”) is a method of processing files in Photoshop that allows you to make changes without overwriting the original image data. Using non-destructive methods, you will always be able to backtrack on adjustments made to an image, retaining flexibility and keeping the resolution of the original image intact.

In fact, you may have already encountered non-destructive editing while following online Photoshop tutorials that instruct you to use a particular adjustment layer to make modifications rather than applying adjustments directly.

Note that non-destructive editing is not one single technique. You can perform it in numerous ways in Photoshop depending on the desired outcome of an image. For this article, I’ll walk you through some of the most basic methods used by photographers for doing NDE in Photoshop.

1. Duplicate the background layer

No matter what image you have opened in Photoshop, you should always start by duplicating the background layer. If you do happen to make an adjustment directly onto the image, the background layer will remain untouched. Then you can start afresh with all your adjustment layers intact!

How do you duplicate the background layer? First, open an image in Photoshop. Move the cursor to the thumbnail image in the Layers panel, and click on the shaded area that says Background:

non-destructive editing duplicate layer

Select the Duplicate Layer option, then select OK when prompted:

nondestructive editing Photoshop

A new layer will appear above the Background layer in the Layers panel, labeled Background Copy:

non-destructive editing

2. Work with adjustment layers

Simply put, adjustment layers apply color and tonal adjustments to an image without permanently changing any pixel values – while the standard Image>Adjustments tools bake each new adjustment into the file.

To get started using layers, you’ll need to make sure the Adjustment Layers panel is active. Just select Window>Adjustments:

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

This will bring up a panel with lots of adjustment layer options such as Hue/Saturation, Curves, Levels, Color Balance, and Black & White. This should be your go-to panel for digital editing, and in most cases, it will provide all the editing tools you will need.

Select one of the adjustment layers by clicking on one of your options:

non-destructive editing curves

In this example, I have chosen Curves to adjust the contrast in my photograph. When I click the icon, the Curves panel pops up and shows me the available settings:

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Notice that there is now a new layer in the Layers panel; this is your adjustment layer, and it should be sitting above the layer called Background, as well as Background Copy. This means that any layers below the Curves layer will be affected by this adjustment.

To limit the effect of an adjustment to a single layer, right-click on the adjustment layer and select Create Clipping Mask. A small arrow pointing downward will appear, indicating that the adjustment layer will only affect the layer sitting directly underneath it:

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

3. Use Smart Filters

Photoshop filters come in handy if you want to sharpen your photos, apply distortion correction, and more. By default, however, they’re applied destructively, and they’re not available as layers, either.

Fortunately, adding a filter to an image can be done non-destructively, which will allow you to undo the effects of it later if you change your mind.

Click on the layer to which you would like to apply a filter, and click on the Filter drop-down menu located in the main toolbar. Select Convert for Smart Filters:

non-destructive editing convert smart filters

A pop-up should appear, saying that you must turn the selected layer into a Smart Object. Hit OK, and a tiny, document-shaped icon will appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the selected layer thumbnail image:

non-destructive editing smart object

After you select a filter and apply it to the image, you will see two new items beneath the selected layer. Clicking on the Eye icon next to the layer in the Layers panel will toggle the filter on and off, and double-clicking near the Filter Gallery text will open the Filter Gallery adjustments. Right-clicking on the Filter Gallery Layer will bring up a menu. If you want to remove a filter altogether, select Delete, and the filter will disappear without degrading your image.

non-destructive editing

4. Use layer masks instead of the Eraser tool

If you want to remove or hide a portion of your image, one option is to use the Eraser tool. Unfortunately, as with Photoshop’s standard adjustments, the Eraser tool is fully destructive.

So instead of using the Eraser tool, I recommend masking.

Masking is one of the more common tools in the Photoshop master’s kit. Using a layer mask allows you to hide – or mask – parts of an image without actually removing the pixels. 

To apply a layer mask, select the layer you want to edit, and click on the circular frame icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

non-destructive editing mask

A mask will appear next to the selected layer, and you’ll see a small chain icon between the thumbnail and the mask. As long as you select the image thumbnail, your editing effects will apply as normal. However, if you select the mask thumbnail, you will find that painting on it with a black brush hides parts of that layer.

Close up of the selected mask layer - note the white lines around the corners of the layer.
Close-up of the selected layer mask. Note that the white lines around the corners indicating which part of the Layers panel is active.
Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop
With the background layer turned off (i.e., not visible) you can see that part of this layer is missing or hidden by the layer mask where it is black.

Also, if any black portion of the mask is painted over with white, the corresponding portions of the image will be visible again. (And if you then delete the mask, all the hidden areas will reappear.)

5. Dodge and burn non-destructively

The Dodge and Burn tools are used to lighten and darken areas of an image, but applying these effects directly to an image is destructive and will prevent you from being able to edit the changes later.

To dodge and burn non-destructively, start by opening up your photo. Duplicate the background layer, then select Layer>New>Layer from the top menu bar:

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop
Create a new layer!

A dialog box will pop up; make sure your settings are the same as those shown below, then hit OK

non-destructive editing
Use these settings for your dodge and burn layer.

A new layer will be created, one filled with gray and with a Soft Light blend mod to make it effective for dodging and burning.

You can give this layer a nickname to help you remember what it is doing. (You can always add it later if you forget – just double-click on the layer name, then type in “dodge/burn.”

How to Edit Non-Destructively in Photoshop

Now simply select either the Dodge or Burn tool and apply any adjustments to this new layer. Though you are now editing one layer above the actual image, you have adjusted the blend mode so that the gray Dodge/Burn layer is completely transparent, and any changes you make to this layer now appear to only adjust the image without impacting the quality of the original pixels.

non-destructive editing dodge burn layer
Result of the dodge and burn layer
Result of the dodge and burn layer!

6. Use the Clone Stamp tool non-destructively

The Clone Stamp is another great tool used to remove bits and pieces you may not want in an image. Normally it works by moving pixels in the original image around but – you guessed it! – that is a very destructive technique.

To use the Clone Stamp Tool non-destructively, simply create a new layer as before. Next, select the Clone Stamp tool, and in the Sample drop-down menu, select the Current & Below option:

clone tool

Now the Clone Stamp tool will sample everything in the image but only apply any changes to the topmost layer.

non-destructive editing
The clone layer looks like this!
clone tool non-destructive
The result of the clone layer being applied looks like this.

Edit without ruining your images!

There are plenty of other methods to edit non-destructively in Photoshop – but as this article hopefully showed, non-destructive editing is mostly about using new layers that are placed above the original image rather than adjusting the original image itself.

It may seem clunky at first, but it will soon become an automatic part of your workflow. The next time you find yourself with an awkward edit, you’ll be glad that you can simply turn a layer off rather than starting all over again!

Now over to you:

Do you edit non-destructively in Photoshop? Do you plan to? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Megan Kennedy
Megan Kennedy

is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications. More of Megan’s work can be viewed at her website or on Instagram at MK_photodiary.

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